By Peter Berman
NORWALK, Conn. – Some five months before the mayoral election it’s increasingly clear that the Democrats face a daunting uphill challenge. The four challengers – a first for modern Norwalk – themselves evidence a disorganized Democratic Party widely viewed as the weakest among the states’ major cities. Especially, when one, former Town Clerk Andy Garfinkel, came close to victory last time around. No mayoral campaign beginning with four challengers has wrested victory in any of the state’s major cities in recent times. However, reportedly each of the four challengers has already raised substantial sums demonstrating seriousness of purpose. None of the challengers gives any evidence of just “going through the paces” with an eye to the future. And each has a substantial cadre of supporters.
Besides strong fund raising together the four challengers have offered a larger variety of OpEd’s dealing with a wide assortment of topics including better relations with Hartford, our dismal stagnated downtown economic development, a stagnant grand list, economic development, improved policing and better public school performance. Similarly in the “meet and greet” gathering earlier this month the candidates talked about economic development, violence prevention and education. Mr. Rilling offered to bring “transparency, openness and civility to government.”
What is surprising is that none of the four candidates have talked the usual “bread and butter” issue that typically surfaces in contested city elections – property taxes, home values and municipal salaries. None of the candidates have so far called attention to the recent 4 percent tax hike, stagnant home values amidst a resurgent housing market nationally and municipal salaries among the highest in the state. In one sense that’s not surprising. None of the Democrat challengers in the last four elections raised those issues and many remember the Democrat controlled state legislature’s unprecedentedly large recent tax hike. Plus the faltering recovery in a state widely reviewed as in financial disarray. One would think Mayor Moccia vulnerable on steadily raising taxes even during the Great Recession amidst unprecedented declines in residential property values.
Another unusual feature of the campaigns to date is that public education is largely off the radar. Most likely this reflects the unprecedented decision of the BOE to seek arbitration for the first time in 30 years. Not only did the Arbitration Award Panel freeze Norwalk teacher salaries for a year, saving the city $2.6 million, but it highlighted that city teachers were the fifth highest paid in the state, the consequences of much higher Norwalk property taxes in reducing property values relative to our neighboring towns and the unusually generous terms of teacher contracts dating back decades, e.g. City taxpayers paying benefits to ex-spouses of our public school teachers.
The Arbitration Award Panel substantiated what’s long been apparent to most attentive Norwalk citizens – relative to our modest family incomes our city over spends on public education and that overspending mostly goes to much higher salaries than in our surrounding towns – among the wealthiest in the nation.
An additional factor taking education off the radar is that under new leadership the BOE is performing admirably, much more so than in recent years if not decades and undertaking a search for a new Superintendent with sensitivity and professionalism.
Yet another factor are the recent revelations of the extraordinary hostile monthly bulletins (the Vanguard) published by the NFT (teacher’s union) sharply criticizing both BOE members and former Superintendent Marks. Why these vitriolic publications haven’t been reported upon earlier remains a mystery. Reportedly the NFT is the most hostile in the state and is urging members to vote against re-election of a pivotal member who helped secure the arbitration award. A recent sharply critical opinion piece by the chair of the administrator’s union underscored the hostility of Norwalk’s public school unions.
Yet another surprising feature of the campaign is that not much has been heard about the “under ticket”, e.g. positions on Common Council and BOE. So far none of the candidates have put together a “team” of supporters seeking election. That’s not a promising development given Norwalk’s “weak mayor, strong Common Council” form of government. Even a new mayor with “strong vision” for moving Norwalk “forward” will find relatively little ability to marshal the forces necessary.
Nor have any of the candidates suggested they will review and make new department head appointments when they assume office. Again, that reluctance to suggest change reflects the long standing Norwalk tradition whereby department heads have de facto “tenure”. Change comes only with difficulty in Norwalk.
So far the GOP has remained quiet, especially Mayor Moccia. As in years past GOP Town Committee Chair Scialabba has launched powerful OpEd attacks against three candidates even going so far as suggesting that Mr. Rilling resign his post on the zoning commission. There’s no precedent for that demand by a party chief. Only former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel awaits Mr. Scialabba’s wrath. Reportedly Norwalk is the only city in the state where an incumbent town committee chair carries the battle to the opposing side even before the candidates have been selected. That gives Mayor Moccia the aura of “elder statesman.”
By primary time the Democrats will then face the formidable hurdle of repairing the inevitable bruised egos and hurt feelings and uniting behind the chosen candidate. By that time the four candidates may well have raised about $100,000. That’s considerably more than was thought necessary not much more than a decade ago to wage a serious campaign by an incumbent. Since Norwalk’s GOP is among the most well established and entrenched GOP in the state the Democrats will face a fund raising challenge of the first magnitude. In effect the Democrats will be required to fund raise twice over.
The success of the Democrat’s uphill battle may also depend on the willingness of the state party’s formidable team to assist with both money and professional support. Making available a “big name” campaign professional to manage the selected mayoral candidate’s campaign in a highly professional matter could be of enormous importance. Recent Democrat campaigns in Norwalk have had neither major support from the state party nor the assistance of a highly valued prominent professional campaign manager. Local campaigning by Governor Malloy could make a big difference.
One sign of whether Mayor Moccia will face a serious challenge is whether the Democrat candidate selected to carry the party’s banner will hoist a sharply focused campaign on just three or four major issues likely to raise a strong following. Driving around town and noting the sheer numbers of “for sale” signs and retired residents anxious to sell out and move away ought to convince at least one Democrat candidate that substantial numbers of local residents are ill equipped to suffer continued tax hikes amidst prospects of stagnant to declining housing values. Similarly with the average municipal salary and benefits at about $100,000 with dozens of $150,000 administrators the salary structure is our municipal employees is running amok. One wonders whether any of elected or appointed officials are watching contract negotiations. Surely they’re out to lunch with our school teacher demands.
In closing, a four term incumbent is always vulnerable. But the residual fallout from four challengers battling it out may well take out much of the steam of the challenge. And if the selected Democrat champion follows the usual local party script of avoiding taxes, property values and municipal salaries then the odds are pretty good that Mayor Moccia will have a fifth term. At this date the smart money is betting on Mayor Moccia by a margin greater than last time’s narrow win. And that the failure of the party to gather around one candidate without going through a bruising primary battle predetermined another lost opportunity.
Peter I Berman